Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What Will Work?

I've been thinking about the global warming problem for many years, reading more intensively for the past year or so, and paying greater attention in the five months I've been writing this blog. Does that make me an expert on this devilishly complicated subject? Hardly. But I have learned a lot, and I want to take a few minutes to sum up how the problem looks to me right now. What are some of the many ideas out there for resolving the worsening climate change problem, and what prospects do they offer?

  • Keep It In the Ground, Divestment, Government Regulation and other attempts to restrict the supply of fossil fuels. Dissuasion of petroleum giants by advocacy campaigns, divestment, shareholder motions and such has the value of publicizing the powerful role of these corporations in driving us forward to disaster. Such campaigns have no force to stop them--indeed, exploration of new reserves seems to be taking an upswing, despite everything we know. Still, the drama of divestment has great educational value, and shareholder campaigns and such at least have the value of speaking truth--in opposition to the rank disinformation of the industry and its propagandists. Nonetheless, where there is demand, supply will follow in our demand-based economy.
  • Restriction of demand. Of more immediate value are regulations, such as those promulgated by Obama and the EPA, to restrict coal-burning power plants. Such regulations are unlikely to restrict natural gas consumption, and may even promote it as an alternative to coal or oil for short-term gain. Automotive restrictions (e.g. fuel efficiency) may help reduce oil consumption, as could a host of other regulatory measures: efficient home construction, for example, 'smart growth' planning, public transit, local sourcing--many traditional 'ecological' policies will have the effect of reducing the most excessive fuel consumption, or direct it to less harmful modes. Voluntary conservation has never been a winning policy strategy though, and in a political democracy regulation of consumption meets strong resistance, particularly in a climate like the US one, fraught with anti-government denialism.
  • Market adjustments of energy costs. Here is where I think the greatest possibilities lie. Carbon taxes or exchanges are making their way, first because of the clear logic--such measures are simply accounting for externalized costs, which are beginning to be visible in the form of storm damage, vanishing reefs, rising sea levels, and droughts. Furthermore, these policies operate within the existing structure of 'free' markets, and are not unlike other familiar adjustments, such as taxes on gasoline or tobacco, with their considerable socialized costs. The Massachusetts legislature is considering a carbon tax proposal, such as parts of California, British Columbia, and other jurisdictions already have. This may be the simplest way to accelerate the use of renewables, particularly solar, which seems to be reaching a competitive price point but still needs to meet the challenge of vast increases in scale. Of course, subsidies and supports are another welcome form of market adjustment--the tax advantages for home installation of solar panels, with the right to sell unused energy to the grid, is an immediate example, though energy interests in Massachusetts are already trying to eliminate the state's brief experiment with this on cost grounds.
  • National vs. International solutions. All attempts to adjust energy markets at the regional or national level meet with the objection of compromised competitivity. On the other hand, those are the effective jurisdictions where policy can be made and enforced. This problem has led to decades of inertia. What seems necessary is broad global agreement to enforce roughly comparable national policies, everywhere. That's the concept behind the COP21 meeting in Paris this year: to solicit national plans (INDCs), compare them for fairness (measured against each nation's capabilities, economic and political as well as logistical), and to aggregate their effects to see whether a relatively 'safe' atmospheric condition (defined as a 2 degree C temperature increase) can be achieved, or whether more drastic measures need to be taken. Whether the agreement in Paris will be achieved, whether it will be in any sense enforceable, and whether the appropriate follow-up and inevitable tightening of policies can be put in place are the big challenges of that initiative. But as former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd argues in today's NY Times, such an effort remains our last best hope.
  • Techo-fixes. These abound, from various proposed methods of carbon capture to saturating the atmosphere with reflective particles to reduce solar radiation to 'salting' the oceans with carbon-attractive iron. Capturing carbon emissions from coal-burning power plants--which will surely continue to operate massively in China, India, and elsewhere for decades to come--is a technology which  seems feasible but expensive, and experiments are underway in China to explore its possibilities. Market absorption of costs would not be as large a problem if carbon surcharges were universally in place. On the other hand, atmospheric and oceanic manipulations on a meaningfully large scale are terrifying, with no real way to do a controlled experiment before we perhaps destroy our environment while trying to save it. The familiar Faustian paradigm--or Frankenstein effect--would discourage me from hoping to see solutions in this quarter. More 'organic' solutions such as massive reforestation--which may be happening anyway in temperate latitudes, but needs massive support in the tropical rainforests where it offers the greatest potential, would be a more rational way to encourage carbon sinks.  
  • Transfers of technology and funding. The international climate movement has foundered from the beginning on the problem of unequal responsibility (early industrializers like the UK and the US put most of the greenhouse gases out there in the first place) and unequal means of remediation (how much can Bangladesh or Mali really pony up to mitigate or adapt?). Poorer countries need help to convert their economies--and to survive the inevitable consequences of climate change. Even newly rich countries like China can legitimately claim johnny-come-lately status, and India is a special case: massively threatening as it prepares to increase its energy consumption, largely by burning coal, and poor enough that significant transformation will need to come from international sources. Add the fact of colonization--India and many others of the world's poorest GHG emitters have been masters of their fates only briefly in modern times--and the logic of the Green Climate Fund becomes completely inevitable. Funding it, however, to the tune of $100 billion per year in NEW funds (not reallocated existing ones) is an enormous political challenge--ask Senator Inhofe, or even candidate Clinton, now much the US should be contributing, and you'll see the problem.
Those are some quick thoughts on a vast problem, which has generated a vast literature. You who are reading this probably have your own thoughts about problems and solutions--I urge you to click on the 'comment' button and share them. 

No comments:

Post a Comment